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Women in elite Indian law firms

In this episode, our guest was Swethaa Ballakrishnen whom we spoke to about their research on women’s representation in elite law firms.  Swethaa’s first book, Accidental Feminism unpacks the case of unintentional gender parity among India’s elite legal professionals. The legal profession worldwide is fairly male-dominated, and India is no exception. However, Elite corporate law firms in India are a surprising exception. These law firms offer a surprising oasis for women within a hostile, predominantly male sector. We explored how egalitarian outcomes have been produced in this relatively recent professional setting without any deliberate effort to do so.

If you like our podcast do consider supporting us with a donation at the link below: https://www.dakshindia.org/donate/

Show Notes

  1. Support us by Donating.
  2. Swethaa S Ballakrishnen Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite. Princeton University Press, 2021.

  3. Ethan Michelson Women in the Legal Profession, 1970-2010: A Study of the Global Supply of Lawyer, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies Vol. 20, No. 2 (2013), 1071.

  4. Bryant G. Garth and Joyce S. Sterling. “Diversity, hierarchy, and fit in legal careers: insights from fifteen years of qualitative interviews.” Geo. J. Legal Ethics 31 (2018): 123

Leah: Welcome to the DAKSH podcast. I’m your host, Leah. I work with DAKSH, a Bangalore based nonprofit working on judicial reforms and access to justice. We have Swethaa Balakrishnan on the podcast to tell us about their research on women’s representation in elite law firms. Swethaa is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Their research examines the intersections between law, globalization and stratification from a critical feminist perspective. She made that first book ‘Accidental Feminism’ unpacks the case of unintentional gender parity among India’s elite legal professionals. The legal profession worldwide is fairly male dominated and India is no exception. However, elite corporate law firms in India are a surprising exception. These law firms offer a surprising oasis for women within a hostile predominantly male sector. We explored how egalitarian outcomes have been produced in this relatively recent professional setting without any deliberate effort to do so. I began by asking Swethaa what inspired them to explore the subject of gender in the context of law firms.

Swethaa: So I started working on this project now over 12 years ago, and at the start of it, it was really an interesting, you know, the legal profession more generally. So I was interested in different kinds of legal organizations. And I was interested in the differences between what then seemed like slightly newer organizations which were these corporate law firms, vis-a-vis litigation practice, which was the, which continues to be the majority of legal practice in India. And around the same time that I was doing this work, another sociologist was working on a demography of the legal profession across different countries. And one of the big findings from that data, and this is Ethan Michelson’s data from you know, 2010, 2011. So every country around the world was increasingly having a trend towards feminization, which literally means there are more women in the legal profession across the world from now compared to 30 years ago, from 2010, compared to 30 years before them. And that trend was true for almost all countries with two specific exceptions. And one of the exceptions was India. And so the data actually shows using census data that only about 5% of all lawyers in India were women at that time, and I was like that can’t be the case, cup flight cannot be 5%. 5% seemed like such a small number. And so then I started doing, like a little bit of digging for Bar Council numbers and you realize even with the Bar Council admission numbers, which are not a very good estimate, because a lot of people get the Bar Council admission, and then don’t practice law, those numbers are not very much higher, either. They’re closer to 10 to 12%, depending on which year you look. And again, all of this data is from when I collected it 10 years ago, right? So I’m sure there are updates to that now. But at that time frame, litigation, and corporate and every kind of law practice together, only about 10% of all lawyers were female, right, which sort of is a really staggering number, even compared to other kinds of populations. But even for India, where other kinds of professions are better represented than the legal field is, but within law firms and within elite law firms, women were entering around the same rate as men, so at about 50%, usually right out of law school, and they were progressing to different stakes and partnership around the same rate as men. And that was striking for a range of reasons, right? Because that’s not what you would expect to find even in countries where the feminization of the profession looks very different. But it’s very striking to find it in a place where only 10% of all lawyers are female. The judiciary is a slightly different matter. So I think the judiciary, depending on which stage you’re looking at, looks slightly different and DAKSH has done such important work on this, and I’ve learned a lot from your demographic work on the profession. I think in 2018, there were two Supreme Court judges that were female, right? It’s since changed, but not that dramatically. Historic representation continues to be pretty low. There are if you, depending on how you look at it, there isn’t more than two or 3% of all lawyers, old judges ever that have been female. Magistrate courts actually look a little bit different, but those are often administrative positions and not judicial positions. And so depending on what, how you think of the word ‘judge’, right, it looks different, but the representation is still very low. And it’s much closer to the representation of lawyers than it is to sort of anything else. And that has just been a striking background within which the book evolved. I said in the book as well, it wasn’t supposed to be an agenda book. It was, I mean, that’s not what I went in to go look for. But the emergence of this juxtaposition set up a data point that was actually really interesting to pursue as a grad student.

Leah: Yeah, I mean, the striking data that you’ve provided about law firms, when I read your book, I actually went to the websites of some of the top law firms to check. I was like, I can’t believe it, that there are so many women who are associates and so many who are partners. So it’s not like they’re entering and dropping off. It was really stunning for me. Yeah.

Swethaa: It’s interesting, because at the time that I was doing this work, there were no law firm websites, so you couldn’t just go up and check it, right? Like, think about it, like the backgrounds will reflect what advertising even looks like, has changed in the last 10 years. So it was striking to me just as somebody that’s gone through law school in India, that went through a five year process and worked in one of these law firms very early and didn’t stay for very long but I don’t think anybody that goes through that process experiences this kind of work as incredibly gender sparse, right. So it’s not gender friendly. But it is not a place where it is striking to be the only woman corporate lawyer. And so to me, the more interesting thing was the opposite data, which is that only 5% of all lawyers are female, like you sort of have a sense that the numbers are low, but you don’t realize it’s that low. And that’s the striking part. That was interesting.

Leah: Yeah. So the most interesting part of your research is, you know, what you describe as accidental feminism. And because I think the outcomes that have been produced in these firms are accidental, that also affects how these firms and the female partners see themselves. For example, when I was in law school, and they came for recruitment, not one of them said, we are a gender friendly workplace, or they didn’t advertise themselves as that. So I mean, I’d be curious to know that I mean, do they identify themselves as feminists?

Swethaa: I love that question. And I’m so pleased you use that example. And, you know, in some sense, these firms definitely did not think of themselves as feminist. And one of the arguments I make in the book is that if they had called themselves feminists firms, they would not have been who they are right now. Right? So if you, you can imagine that in a construction of a firm as feminist allows for a certain path dependency for how that firm is going to live out in the world, what kind of organizational outcomes that firm is going to have, who’s going to be seen as valued and valuable, and what those priorities of those firms are. And part of what allowed it to create a space that ended up being gender friendly, in a circumstance, at least for certain kinds of women, was that it did not name itself feminist, right. So again, I did not start this project as a project on feminism. So that was not, it was sort of a grounded theory approach is what came from the data. It’s not what I went looking for. So I didn’t really ask everyone. So would you say you consider yourself a feminist, right, but it was striking in the ways they spoke about themselves, that, you know, as one partner said, you know, it’s not about gender, we believe in merit, which again, is interesting, because merit has not helped women in the past, usually, this is what is used. This is what is used to do the work of sort of hetero patriarchy and caste and class and you know, social capital, it’s the lever behind which deep inequality exists. So, it’s interesting that here, this idea of like, “Oh, we don’t really care about that, but we care about merit”, actually allowed for a focus. So one of the ways in which I craft the argument is to suggest that it’s not so much advantage, as it is lack of distinct disadvantage, right? And those two things are slightly different, because it allowed for an oasis of parity to exist, because the rest of it was so embedded in gender terms, that this one space where actually gender was not that big a deal allowed for a perverse capacity for equality to surface, right. So the fact that these people could say merit is what matters was really then also saying, you know, “urban Capital and class and caste and all of these other ways in which we do modernity is what matters, and gender in that hierarchy of things was not very high”, right? So it was much more, you know, so when someone says, we care about meritocracy, the capacity it offers to on to other kinds of equality is always there. It just so happens that gender was not what fell to the wayside in this particular reorganization of equality.

Leah: What does the intersection of caste and class with gender look like in these firms?

Swethaa: Yeah, so I’m really glad you asked that question. So, you know, caste continues to matter in the litigating bar, right. So there’s a lot of empirical research across sites. It’s a little bit dated, but it completely exists that you know, Hindus and local elites continue to reap unequal rewards and caste, kinship, communal ties, they matter definitely in corporate ecosystems and landscapes, right. It’s sort of there are some ways in which that doesn’t come about in quite the same way but for the most part, this is how the kind of person that does well, like I call it the, as one partner said, you know, a certain kind of woman does well. And really what you’re signaling to is a, you know, a Savarna, urban person with also access to a lot of in-group capital. And what I mean by that is access to, you know, especially for mothers or people who had caretaking responsibilities, parents and kin that lived close by, that could come and help out with childcare, right, or that could help out with other kinds of familial balancing that fell unduly on women, for example. And I offer this because I think there’s a lot of entrenched social and cultural capital that is involved in this. But it is also true that they were the first generation of professional elites, a lot of these women, they were not children of like really rich people, right. In fact,if they came from wealth, the fact that they had a corporate law salary would not have distinguished them that much from their previous generation. Part of what allowed for this renegotiation of gendered hierarchy was the fact that they were the first wave of a certain kind of elite professional and economic capital very clearly. But it is also true that intersecting with that was a certain capacity for a very, very obvious caste and, and sort of urban privilege that was inherent across the data. And so chapter six, which talks about, you know, how familial and sort of dependency mechanisms, right, so it’s also who they relied on for care work, right? There’s an entire, you know, all professional women in the sample across not just the law firms, but in like, sort of consulting firms and banks, right, like, so sort of non lawyers as well, there was a certain assumption that the care work for the home was done by a caste dependent labor force, right. So there was a very clear hierarchy, who got to do the work that even could ascend to this idea of like feminist organizational work and professional success.

Leah: And then suppose that I mean, the pipeline from which the law firms are recruiting other elite law schools, which are again attracting, you know, mostly urban English speaking elite students, isn’t it?

Swethaa: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think the path dependency of who goes to these schools, who is successful in these schools, right? I mean, although the dip to what success these schools required to actually enter these firms has changed over the last 20 years, right. So like, I remember, 20 years ago, you had to be a topper to get into one of these firms. And now the toppers are not going to these firms, because the you know, the market has changed so much that their path dependency has changed, too. But it is true that these schools privilege and validates and support a very specific kind of law student who is elite within these spaces. And it’s urbanity. And you’re totally right. English is the sort of cultural capital to and the ways in which it works out is people will say, “Well, you know, you want someone who knows how to handle the culture of the firm, right, which is often a way of using a merit-adjacent thing like fit, right, which other scholars and other contexts have showed is a way of selecting based on class and cultural capital. And that definitely was a function of how people could afford to say, “Oh, we only care about merit”, because they were hiring from elite schools. But elite schools also had an internal logic of what merit looked like for them. So there’s no question that there was a specific kind of reproduction of hierarchy that was class and caste and sort of urban-based.

Leah: Yeah. What’s also interesting would be if you could tell our listeners, what were the structural conditions outside these firms in the economy, that enabled these firms to accidentally create gender equal spaces. 

Swethaa: The first bit is that there was no idea of who the ideal worker was. And so there was not an idea of who the elite corporate lawyer is. I do this exercise in law schools in the US where I get people to close their eyes and I get them to think like, who do you think a good, who is this ideal for a corporate lawyer, right? And it’s changed over the years, but mostly people will close their eyes and be like, what’s an older white man who lives in a corner office, you know, someone who has a pipe, I don’t know, like some some version of like what you think of as an elite old person who’s likely to succeed the ideal workers based set. But in India, like sort of that sort of movement of who that ideal worker is, is a sort of very recent movement, which means that it isn’t obvious who a good corporate lawyer outside of perhaps that they go to one of these elite law schools, right. Like there isn’t a gendered production of that ideal type, which then allowed for a renegotiation of hierarchy is the sort of like the first structural condition and that was accidental. It’s not like this. I mean, the national law schools weren’t set up, as we know, to provide lawyers into these law firms, but they ended up doing exactly that. It’s the exact striking first condition like the first structural condition that was accidental, right. If the schools had opened 10 years earlier, and had been like social justice schools with a commitment to like only trained lawyers which is what they started off as and that was what their commitment was to. They might have had a different path dependency, but it so happened that they started to train and graduate elite lawyers at the same time that these firms opened, and were ready to recruit, right. And so for a lot of people who didn’t have kinship networks or other kinds of ways in which they could enter the legal profession, it sort of was a natural fit, because it was like “Arre, I don’t know anybody else, there’s nothing else I really want to do.” And this is like a background thing I’m going to do, I’m just gonna see what I will do. Like after a couple of years, I’ll figure out what I want to do. So it’s like, you know, Brian Garth and Joyce Sterling call this the “Off Broadway on Broadway tactic” where people like to jump to law firms not so much because they want to stay there. But because they’re like, you know, I get this “chappa and I’ll figure out what I want to do next.” And that sort of strategy for a lot of people who weren’t convinced what they wanted to do with their law degree, because they were also doing this at such an early stage of their careers, right, where you could finish at 21. And when you finish, you could become a partner by 30. And that timeframe, again, has gendered effects because it means you can make decisions about your personal life and make decisions about agency that are distinctly different than you might be able to if you were starting your legal career at 27, right, where life choices for men and women diverge very differently. And this is what the data shows in other countries where people enter the workforce much later. So the fact that these schools started at the same time was not based on a gendered assumption of what they wanted corporate law firms to look like. The fact that the market opened when it did was not a function of how, you know, had nothing to do with gender, had nothing to do with feminism. But it still produced what ended up being a space where these firms inherently, where domestic firms that were like I said, external facing. So the big organizational argument I make in the book is that these firms had to do two things, they had to prove that they were not like other firms, right, the other domestic firms, they were like “we’re different from these other firms”, because they were trying to prove that they will meritocratic modern institutions. And they had to do this posturing of how they were modern like the firms internationally, right, so we’re like, there was a differentiation logic in that we’re not like these other places where, you know, you know, all logics of gender or hierarchy will matter. But not only that, we’re also just like you and that we believe in equality, right. So I call this the speculative isomorphism, because they were trying to mimic what a global law firm was, or is, and they did it in a range of ways. Gender was not the only way in which they did it, right. They look and feel like global law firms in every sense of the way. And that’s actually, organizationally as a sociologist, I find it incredibly promising that that production happened over that 20 year period, it was really fascinating to watch. But one of the things in which one of the scripts that they borrowed, right, was the script of equality and meritocracy. And like, you know, of course, you know, we’re not going to do this terrible thing of differentiating based on gender, because that’s the sort of traditional thing we’re not like, right. So again, this was not done to make a feminist organization, it was done to signal meritocracy and equality, which was an assumed global script. And that’s why the comparison to consulting firms and banks is actually really useful, I think analytically in the book because it offers a framework for thinking about how other organizations in a range of other fields in India around the same time, even though they were new, even though they didn’t have this idea of the ideal worker, which is my primary argument, could not have these gender outcomes, or did not have these gender outcomes. And part of it was because they already had the legitimacy of being global firms, right? So if you go to a top MNC, with an India office, and you look at sort of the gender composition, that it doesn’t look like the law firms look, and they when you ask them about it, one of the ways in which they talk about it is like hey, you know, we try doing these gender things, but this is India, you know, how it is, which is like such a dismissive way of thinking about the possibility in the Global South. I think, unlike these global firms that could say, you know, we have a great agenda, we want to do good diversity, but you know, India, and thought that was accepted. I mean, I don’t think they said it in quite the same ways. But there was a sense that it was hard to implement this idea of like, you know, we have good intentions, but it’s really hard to implement in this society, which then gets reinforced in ideas of like how global south logics work was distinctly different in these elite firms, because they were actually trying to over signal how meritocratic and modern they were. And they ended up actually being better than the scripts they were trying to mimic. And I think that’s the sort of, again, another structural condition that was not about gender, but ended up allowing for a space where it was important for the organizational culture, to not have gender be a thing that they were indifferent about.

Leah: So you mentioned, you know, becoming a partner at 30. And that was, that’s a good segway to my next question. So that’s a career track that’s very different from other professions. You know, in other professions, you’re going to reach the top of your profession only by your mid 30s, or closer to your 40s. So how does that affect the retention of women in the workforce in these elite law firms? 

Swethaa: Yeah,great question. So the partner by 30. So I think of it, I mean, that again, that’s not true, right. And as the firms grow, and they mature, and the market widens, it’s going to look very different than it’s not going to be partner by 30. It’s gonna be partner by 35, or whatever. But it’s true that because they start so early, the path dependency of when they have to make life course choices, which are very dichotomous, which is often what happens. So the data in the US, for example, is a seven year jump off period for the most part, which is that people start at these different organizations and then by year seven of their careers, they realize they actually have to make distinctly different choices or, or choices that are different from what choices they might have been able to make at the start. And it’s a live course, predicated intersection, which is that they realize that they have to rethink what they can do or might be able to do, depending on their personal choices. In Indian law firms, because they started earlier, I don’t think they were at the top of their careers, but they were definitely in a position where they could make very agentic choices about their clients, or their sort of relationships with their colleagues were distinctly different by 30. And I think those structural conditions changed how, what kinds of personal decisions they could make, right, so very few women in my sample had children before, they wouldn’t seek more senior levels. They could afford to do that, because they could get to more senior levels and not write off the possibility of having children. Again, I mean, if you compare it to the data more generally, like when women get married and have children in India, it’s still, you know, much later than the average. But for the particular sub sample that we’re talking about, it’s not that much later. They could afford to make personal choices, because the nature of the firm was so distinctly different. And I think that makes a big difference. Again, the partnership tracks were not set up based on wanting to give women reproductive choices like that could not have possibly been how these firms were set up. But again, accidentally, the ways in which they were set up afforded one more way in which their structural conditions afforded the capacity to make choices that weren’t strictly dichotomous.

Leah: Just coming back to the accidental part, which is my favorite part of your book. So I mean, because the gender outcomes in these firms were accidental and not intentional, do you think that’s why we don’t see the same caste and class outcomes because the firms are not trying to build a diverse workforce? Do you think that needs intention and effort?

Swethaa: That’s a great question. Actually, I think everything needs intention and effort. Nothing about this book is to suggest that we should rely on accidents for better social and economic outcomes. It’s sort of much more a way to think about this in addition to intentionality, right? So it’s, I think all diverse workforces require deep intention, they need intention at micro levels. My next project is actually on diversity more generally, and how lack of intention or rather posturing of intention can actually be harmful for a lot of workplaces. But in these spaces, I think it’s both true that they were not intentionally trying to create diverse workforces, but also this logic of “Oh, we only care about meritocracy, where meritocracy is predicated on a certain kind of ideal worker who has class, caste and sort of urban privileges”, is a way in which inequality can get done using the guise of merit, right, which has happened in other spaces. It just didn’t happen about gender. But it could have as easily happened about gender, too, I guess that’s the point the book makes. But the opposite, the corollary that you’re suggesting is actually really useful, because it reminds us that everything requires intention. And if you allow accidents to be the way in which good outcomes get produced, then we are hanging on like a wish that is probably a very terrible way to do good policy, which is sort of how the book ends.

Leah: Yeah, so coming to policy, I’m sure, as a sociologist, you’re quite tired of policy people asking you for solutions. And you know, how do we change things? And so I mean, that’s going to be my final question. So what are the implications of your research on policy? Or on how we look at change? You know, can this accident of feminism give us any lessons on how organizations can possibly intentionally encourage diversity?

Swethaa: Yeah, so I think one of the ways in which to what I hope this does beyond offer a new theoretical framework to think about progress, right, which is really where my head and brain is at but which is to think about, at what stage of evolution, do you start converting what could be accidental to intention? Right. So that’s, I think even In places where there is an accident, I do end the book optimistically by thinking of yeah, you need intention. But there’s a path dependency for accidents that actually can allow for intention to be better served, right. So if you already have a mass of a certain kind of demographic population, it’s easier to impact change, or it’s easier to actually convert that accident to intentional progress in specific sorts of ways. But I think the policy recommendation is actually to look differently at where we’re looking for outcomes, right. So I think if we look in only specific sorts of ways, what looks like progress might actually not be progress, and what looks like lack of progress might actually be progress. And I think that’s the sort of queering of what I hope this research does, which is to afford us new tools to think about what organizations really need to look at to think about what is progress? I don’t think I thought them as agnostic li feminist when I was in them what I had closeness to them, right, but like distance, and research allows you to see these organizations slightly differently. And I think part of the policy recommendation is to look maybe differently at what is working in any particular site context, which might not always be obvious, right. So you might not think of something as actually doing really well on a specific framework until you pay attention to the data. And I think the first recommendation for everything is to just be more mindful and collect better data on everything all the time, because you don’t know what you’re likely to find. And the converse, which is that good diversity in each firm might look very different. And it should look very different, right? So you might imagine that you can have a policy that says, well make sure every firm has X number of whatever, you know, fill in the blank of whatever you think good diversity is. But it might actually not be doing very good diversity, if it’s not paying attention to what hierarchies are reproduced and what hierarchies are allowed to be renegotiated. And so I think the hopeful policy recommendation is that we are more intentional about where we look for change and how we actually implement that change at the organizational level and not at, like these very meta levels.

Leah: That’s a nice hopeful note on which to end this. Collect better data, that is something that DAKSH has been saying for a long time. So yeah, we wholeheartedly support that.

Swethaa: Thank you so much, and I’ve learned so much from the DAKSH data. You know, my research has used it multiple times, and I’m really grateful, you do that work. Thank you.

Leah: Thank you, Swethaa for breaking down the fascinating and unique gender parity found in elite law firms in India. If you enjoyed the episode, do consider supporting us with a donation. The link is in the show notes below. Creating this podcast takes effort and your support will help us sustain a space for these quality conversations. To find out more about us and our work, visit our website dakshindia.org. That’s D-A-K-S-H india.org. Don’t forget to tap, follow or subscribe to us wherever you listen to your podcast so that you don’t miss an episode. We would love to hear from you. So do share your feedback either by dropping us a review, or rating the podcast where podcast apps allow you to. Talk about it on social media. We are using the hashtag dakshpodcast. It really helps to get the word out there. Most of all, if you found some useful information that might help a friend or family member, share the episode with them. A special thanks to our production team at “Made in India’, our production head Niketna K, edited, mixed and mastered by Lakshman Parshuram and project supervision by Sean Phantom.



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